The idea of having employees walk around with electronic sensors to track their every move is unsettling. There are privacy and legal issues, and who wants to feel like they are just a cog in a system? But data companies say that the resulting reams of information will improve life for companies and employees.
Sociometric Solutions has created tracking devices for Bank of America, Steelcase and Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc., and is in talks with General Motors. It was started by a team of Ph.D students from MIT who decided to study the chemistry behind what makes certain workspaces like Google great at building teams. They came up with sensors placed in employee identification badges that gather real-time information to help companies measure productivity. The sensors identify a person's tone of voice, movement and even their posture when communicating with others.
"Google really cares about creating a community because the social conversations -- the ones at the water cooler, coffee maker -- those are the ones that have the biggest impact," says Ben Waber, president of Sociometrics and one of the company's founders. "In the U.S., there's this notion that your most productive time is when you're sitting at your desk staring at the computer," and that's not necessarily true.
The sensors are intended to measure when and how employees are truly productive. While individual information is collected, it's anonymized to provide metadata and hedge against privacy concerns. The information is then used to suggest how employees, and the company as a whole, can work more efficiently.
"The legality behind this," says Arena, "that's the biggest unanswered question. Privacy online is sort of open and privacy issues are going to be the stumbling block for a long time. And that's a big, big question."
The Tracking SensorsWaber's team places electronic sensors in employees' badges, which includes a Bluetooth, a microphone (it doesn't record what people say, but rather the tone of their voice, speaking speed and volume), a motion sensor to measure movement, and an infrared beam.
The idea is that these analytic tools can help determine the nature of the conversations people are having. For example, the microphone can measure speaking tone, and the higher someone's tone or the faster they speak can indicate how excited or passionate they are at any given time.
The infrared can also sense if another badge is in sight, which gives researchers an idea of how people stand when speaking to others. For example, people who usually have others facing them when speaking are more dominant personalities. On the other hand, when two people are engaged in an interesting conversation, they will likely mirror one another, which signals more equality.
"We've been able to foretell, for example, which teams will win a business plan contest, solely on the basis of data collected from team members wearing badges at a cocktail reception," Alex Pentland, a professor at MIT and also an advisor to Waber's group, wrote for the Harvard Business Review.
Since privacy is the biggest concern over the devices, after behavioral/productivity reports are sent to individuals, their identities are removed from the system so the names associated with individual sensors are never revealed to employers.
The Testing GroundsBank of America got on board with the sensors a few years ago when it wanted to study how group dynamics impacted performance. It tested them out on 90 call center employees. Arena says that the company discovered how important it was to allow employees to take breaks together. During that time, employees would often troubleshoot their workplace problems. While sensors didn't monitor conversation, they did report "a cohesiveness was shared between the co-workers," says Arena, and the company eventually experienced a 10 percent improvement in productivity by making some workplace culture changes after the study.
Although Bank of America tested its call center employees, Arena said he thinks the data "has bigger ramifications in professional jobs than anywhere else," because you will inevitably be able to "understand how one person steps into the room and influences others."
"It has greater ramifications in leadership than hourly workers, but it's in the early stages." Arena is now the head of global talent at General Motors, and told us the company is considering "doing very similar things."
Steelcase, which makes office furniture, works with Sociometric to develop sensory products for its own merchandise. For example, its new chair, Gesture, is "designed to support our interactions with today's technologies" and was "inspired by the movement of the human body." The new chair can actually tell employers how it's being used by employees, which will give employers a better idea of what size tables and chairs to buy in order to promote better communication and, inevitably, a more productive team.
"What we hoped to learn was how things influence interactions and how spaces affect those interactions," Dave Lathrop, director of workspace futures and strategy at the company, told us.
Lathrop says most of us don't know how we interact with others. For example, if you have a dominating personality, you could be "forcing people to shut down" and make them distrust you without even knowing it.
"Yahoo and Best Buy are asking people to come back to the office, which does suggest that there's a general belief that when people get physically together, it's valuable," he says. "We're at this magical moment where we can do things that we couldn't do before ... having the analytics that we do. ... As a researcher, I'm incredibly hopeful that this will give us good data on the quality of interactions between people."
But at the end of the day, employees need to feel comfortable with the idea of being tracked, even if it's anonymously -- and that may take a while.
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